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W.Va. still owned by absentee companies, report says

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Absentee corporations still control much of West Virginia's land, according to an updated examination of landownership released Monday by two public interest groups.

Twenty-five companies own nearly 18 percent of the state's roughly 13 million private acres, according to the report produced by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee.

In six counties, the top 10 landowners hold more than half of the private land. Five of those six -- Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone -- are in the state's southern coalfields.

Wyoming County had the highest concentration of landownership, with more than three-quarters of the private acres controlled by its top 10 owners. The top 10 landowners controlled 63 percent of the land in McDowell County, 61 percent in both Logan and Webster counties, 59 percent in Boone County and 54 percent in Mingo County.

None of the state's top 10 private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia.

"Absentee land ownership is a major thread that runs through our state's history," said report co-author Beth Spence, coalfield specialist with the American Friends Service Committee. "Like those who studied this issue before us, we believe that knowing who owns West Virginia's land and mineral resources can help us make good decisions about the state's economic future and well-being."

Spence and other researchers reviewed property records from around the state to revisit the landmark 1974 series by then-Huntington Herald-Dispatch reporter Tom Miller, "Who Owns West Virginia?"

Miller confirmed that vast acreage was controlled by a handful of mostly out-of-state energy and land companies. Miller started his series by stating he had found that, "Absentee landlords own or control at least two-thirds of the privately held land in West Virginia." A later report by the Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force generally confirmed those findings.

The new report concluded that West Virginia is at least partly "a state in transition." Land ownership appears at least somewhat less concentrated than it was four decades ago.

Miller found that just two dozen corporations -- all directly or indirectly tied to mineral industries -- owned one-third of the state's private acreage. The new report said that the top 25 private owners controlled 17.6 percent of the state's private land.

Authors of the new report said that they weren't sure how to explain that difference, but said it was likely a combination of actual decline in concentrated ownership and some differences between the methods used in the different investigations.

The new report also explained, "While much of the state's private land is still owned by large, mainly absentee corporations, the list of top ten owners -- once dominated by energy, land-holding and paper companies -- now includes major timber management concerns, which are in essence money-managers for investors."

North Carolina-based Heartwood Forestland Fund, a timberland investment company that owns more than 500,000 acres in 31 counties, is West Virginia's largest landowner.

The report explained that large timberland management companies were formed in the 1980s, as "vertically integrated" timber companies -- which controlled land, harvested trees and produced pulp and paper - that were broken up in response to investment trends, tax law changes, and mechanization.

In the new report, second on the list of large West Virginia landowners was Norfolk Southern, the Norfolk, Va.-based railway company, with 240,000 acres.

As researchers were preparing the new report, the paper giant MeadWestvaco announced that it had reached an agreement to sell all of its U.S. timberland to another timber management company, Plum Creek Timber of Seattle.

In 2011, when data was gathered for the report, Plum Creek was West Virginia's eighth-largest landowner with 114,000 acres in five counties. MeadWestvaco was seventh on the ownership list with 115,000 acres in four counties. The property transfer, finalized just last week, vaults Plum Creek into third place among West Virginia's landowners, with 229,000 acres.

Others in the new top 10 landowner list were Natural Resource Partners, Pardee Resources, Coastal Lumber, Penn Virginia, Alpha Natural Resources and CONSOL Energy, which recently sold large West Virginia holdings to Murray Energy.

In some counties, just one company owns a significant share of the privately held land. For example, Heartwood owns about one-fourth of the private land in Wyoming, Wetzel and Clay counties. Norfolk Southern owns one-fifth of McDowell County, and Pardee Resources owns nearly one-fifth of Webster County.

Only three of the corporations identified by Miller -- Consolidation Coal, Norfolk and Western Railroad and Westvaco -- are still among the state's top 10 landowners, and they have been renamed as CONSOL Energy, Norfolk Southern and MeadWestvaco.

The new study found that corporate landownership ranked far lower than reported in 1974 in some counties, including Barbour, Harrison, Lincoln, Mineral and Putnam.

"It is very difficult to discern why private land concentrations has shrunk in these counties over the last 40 years," the new report said. "It could be an issue of double counting acreage -- for example, counting both mineral ownership and surface ownership -- which took place during the 1974 study."

In the Marcellus Shale natural gas counties of the northeast and north-central part of the state, the private land ownership is less concentrated and tends to be owned more by individuals than large, out-of-state corporations, the report said.

Still, the report looked only at surface landownership, not mineral ownership and not whether ownership of coal or gas reserves had been "severed" from the surface ownership.

Report authors said that more research on those topics is needed, that problems of access to complete property and mineral ownership data should be addressed, and that policymakers need to consider their findings when planning future economic development efforts.

"With only a few large companies owning a big portion of the southern coalfields, it could make it incredibly difficult to develop the area as coal continues to decline," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "The implications of this research merit further investigations of taxation, mineral ownership, and how to incentivize development in the region."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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